ISIS Might be Defeated but the Challenge for Iraq is Just Beginning.

The Iraqi army and the various militias that support it, have stormed the town of Ayadiya, about 15 kilometers north of Tel Afar. This is the last Islamic State (IS) stronghold in the governorate (province) of Nineveh.

Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul, was once best known for its Assyrian ruins, in the north of the country. Now, it has become better known for its occupation by ISIS/Daesh or Islamic State and unspeakable horror. Meanwhile, Iraqi government soldiers have seized control of the entire town of Tel Afar yesterday, about 70 kilometers west of Mosul, and almost dominated the district of the same name eight days after they launched an offensive against the last EI stronghold. The ISIS fighters (‘jihadists’) did not offer much resistance and Iraqi forces advanced rapidly in the past week.

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Mosul has served as the main stronghold of the Islamic state in Iraq since June 2014. Those claiming loyalty to ISIS have fought for almost nine months to try to maintain the city since the end of 2016, but government troops and allied militias managed to expel them. Iraqi troops then secured control over most of the province, except for some regions in Tel Afar and the city of Al Ayadiya and surrounding areas.
Iraqi officials have begun offering triumphant statements. They claim Iraq will be completely free of fighters from the terrorist organization Daesh in two months, said Haidar Hadi Iraq’s ambassador to Russia, Haidar Hadi. The fleeing fighters have nowhere to go. They have little choice but to fight until the death and Iraq could be rid of their presence in months if not weeks. But, the demise of the Islamic State is not all good news. ISIS has given Iraqis a rare common – or almost common – enemy. Baghdad will have to resume thinking about the problems from which ISIS served as a distraction.

Iraq Cannot Afford Any Triumphalism.

Insofar as ISIS has lost the military battles, it has not lost the ideological war. The liberation of Mosul is a reset button for Iraq, sending its people to the troubled period that immediately preceded and facilitated the expansion of a radical Sunni group like ISIS. The latter’s intellectual and ideological hold over the process of political, social, religious, and ethnic life in Iraq have not burned in the battlefields. The threat to Iraq from ISIS, just remains. It could last for years. Just like the Taliban in Afghanistan have continue to launch attacks against government elements and their foreign backers, ISIS or its metamorphosis will carry out suicidal attacks to expose Baghdad’s weakness. Therefore, it is likely that Baghdad will uphold a state of emergency for some time yet to regain ‘supremacy’ over key areas.

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To grasp the scale of the difficulty, since 2014 when ISIS gained control of almost half of Iraqi territory. Iraq has only thought of “surviving. In a way, this was easier than the nation building it must achieve now. Fighting a hated enemy involves less effort than to lay the foundations for cohesion and stability in Iraq, strengthening civil institutions, fighting corruption and gain legitimacy. The Iraqis and Iraq suffered more than just discord and division. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.  The extent of destruction of residential areas and economic infrastructure seems incalculable. The economy and the social fabric disintegrated. These are just some of the wounds that will have to be fixed amid the efforts that many groups will continue to devote to separating and declaring the independence of certain regions.

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When, more than 14 years ago, American soldiers invaded Iraq, toppling the regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, US strategy administrators of George W. Bush had a clear goal in mind. They wanted to establish a pro-American, or at least western friendly regime in Baghdad, that would help the United States expand its influence in the Middle East. Bush declared victory and, in fact, from a military point of view, the operation was a success. Baghdad fell quickly, it seemed. Some Iraqis topple statues of Saddam Hussein as the ‘liberators’ drove their tanks and armored vehicles under the gigantic crossed swords at the entrance of Saber Stadium. Built, after the Iran-Iraq war, the monument ended up symbolizing Saddam Hussein’s demise. But, the former Iraqi president and leader of the Ba’ath Party did have a last laugh of sorts. On December 30, 2007, Saddam Hussein was hanged. The executioners could not have ignored that this the execution would have consolidated sectarian Shiite/Sunni violence for years to come. One of the executioners, in a video that the media played around the world, tells Saddam to “go to hell”. The then former president replied: “to the hell that is Iraq?” Indeed, Iraq became a hell, years before ISIS stepped in to raise the temperature.

A Highly Flawed Victory

The Americans may have achieved a swift and decisive military victory. But, from any other point of view, regime change in Iraq has been a disaster. Islamic State, the ISIS that preceded have merely been the most terrifying expression of the colossal failure that Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ has been. The failure has two sides. It was a failure because Iraq, while no longer ruled by the Baath regime, descended into a spiral of sectarian violence with daily and deadly manifestations.

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A country that had maintained an enviable degree of stability, considering its flawed origins at the 1919 Versailles Conference – angering that famous champion of Arab nationalism that was T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) – descended into violent chaos. It made Beirut of the 1980’s look like a family friendly vacation spot. Successive Iraqi governments have always struggled to maintain unity between the three main ethnic/religious groups: The Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds. Saddam favored the Sunnis. The post-Saddam era has seen the Shiites taking revenge on the Sunnis, stripping them of any influence and power. That helped to incite ISIS in the first place. Then there are the Kurds. In fairness, the Kurdish problem’s complexity reaches well beyond Iraq’s borders. But, much of Iraq’s oil comes from oil fields in the Kurdish controlled territories. Baghdad will not agree to any Kurdish autonomy claims. That said, neither will Turkey, Syria or Iran.
If the Iraqi government does not make strengthening national unity a priority, another ‘ISIS’ will emerge. Baghdad must focus on trying to eliminate ethnic and political discrimination to prevent the resumption of fierce political conflicts. ISIS took advantage pf the deep divisions that existed in Iraq and the Mosul region. Therefore, unity and integrity of all political groups and parties should be inscribed as a fundamental principle. It should be noted that separatist incentives persist, particularly in today’s Kurdish regions.

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ISIS might be on its way out, but a new series of military and political conflicts in Iraq is ready to begin. Moreover, the Kurds feel they have earned the right to more autonomy. They were among the most active forces in the fight against ISIS because they stayed and fought. They did not leave the captured areas. The possibility of a dispute between the central government and the Kurdistan region is high. If it is not managed, it can become a crisis.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government itself might come under pressure from the Americans. The post-Saddam, Shiite dominated government in Baghdad, has kept inevitable ties to Washington. Yet, it has also been intensifying ties to neighboring Iran, a country that the Trump administration finds especially hostile. The fight against ISIS has only intensified the alliance between Baghdad and Tehran. Of course, Iraq remains a Shiite majority country, although for many years it has been ruled by a Sunni president like Hussein. After Saddam was toppled, Americans have always supported Shiite-led governments in a divide and conquer approach. The policies of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014) were so sectarian as to have been blamed for facilitating ISIS’s rapid expansion in northern Iraq where the Sunni population dominates. Indeed, the sectarian/discriminatory arrangements, encouraged Sunni soldiers and government officials to leave Baghdad and other major cities to either fill, or support, the ranks of ISIS. The weakened Iraqis relied on Iran for military support.

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Now, doubtless, as happened in 2006 in Lebanon after the Israeli-Hezbollah war, Iran will likely play a lion’s role in post-conflict reconstruction projects. In view of the tensions with Washington, Iran could also instigate anti-American Shiite militias in Baghdad. At an even more elementary level, Iranian backed militias – in a similar fashion to Hezbollah perhaps – will likely remain as an unofficial/official militia.  Iran also exerts a major influence on the Iraqi Parliament, the Interior Ministry and the Federal Police. The next parliamentary elections next year will reflect the Iranian influence. But, as such, they might also revive the sectarian divisions that will remain the crux of the problem for Iraq.  Iran wants to establish a direct corridor – to move weapons among other goods – to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria.
Iran’s strategy could face some obstacles as the Sunni minority in Iraq is not a minority after all. It’s rather large at 42% (51% Shiite). But, Iraqi Sunnis still have clear memories of when they were in charge. Many of them will resist the Shiite power and, even more, the Iranian interference.
Alessandro Bruno



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